Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Into the Vaults: We always wanted to play Aragorn

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I began playing (Advanced) Dungeons & Dragons in 1978. There has always been a ranger class in my D&D, and we always wanted to play Aragorn. No doubt you’ve heard of him? However, it turns out that “ranger” as a concept can be difficult to implement as a class, and a class by itself does not necessarily lead to playing Aragorn.

That 1st Edition ranger class has some curious elements. Sure, tracking, surprise bonuses, the “giant class” damage bonus, interesting followers, and the otherwise incongruous ability to use scrying items all say “Aragorn”. We learned to like the d8 hit die, with a second hit die at 1st level, and 11 hit dice total. But spell use?! Druid and magic-user spells?! Presumably the best way to represent some of Aragorn’s more fantastic abilities in game. However, I have no idea what our beloved Gygax was thinking with the limits on rangers appearing in a group. I can only assume his players loved rangers as much as I do, and he ended up with more at the table than he liked.

I was not an early fan of 2nd Edition, and that’s putting it mildly. I carefully noted and considered every change as I read the new Player’s Handbook. Two-weapon fighting?! I racked my brain for when Aragorn wielded two weapons. Because clearly, if Aragorn didn’t do it, it shouldn’t be a part of the ranger class. Ah! There was that time on Weathertop, when wielding a torch in one hand and a sword in the other, Aragorn at least temporarily drove off the Nazgûl. That must be it! Crisis averted. In time, another dual-wielding character who shall remain nameless came to dominate the portrayal of the ranger.

The official D&D ranger continues to evolve, leaning this way and that, and I continue to evaluate ranger classes (and the games they are a part of) through the lens of Aragorn. But as difficult (if not impossible) as it is to get a ranger class right, turns out, that’s not enough. Aragorn isn’t Aragorn without the Dúnedain, the Rangers of the North, Narsil and much more. Aragorn isn’t a class, he’s a very important thread in the rich tapestry that is Tolkien’s Middle-earth. To play a similar thread, you need a similar tapestry. That’s why I’m passionate about the Heroic Fantasy Handbook, which provides Judges with the tools to weave their own tapestry not unlike Middle-earth, wherein new threads not unlike Aragorn may flourish.

And that is why I play the game!

Monday, December 7, 2015

Into the Vaults: How one lair added AWESOME into a campaign

I was a player, not a Judge, when the first Dungeons & Dragons Book of Lairs was published [REF3: The Book of Lairs (1986)], but one lair from that book plus my player character mixed together to dramatically impact the future of our campaign.  It seemed like such a simple thing …

We were on the road between adventures, when we learned of troubles caused by a newly arrived creature of considerable ability.  Certainly, the creature seemed very sure of its invincibility, as it was trivial to track its depredations back to its lair.  The encounter was one of those that seemed on the edge of a Total Party Kill, but we were victorious over … one ogre mage.

What followed was entirely my fault.  My character was the de facto leader of the party, and I should mention that we used my character’s Gray Elf lifespan as something of an excuse for the occasional meta-knowledge of monsters the character might have.  My character said “The horn of this magical creature must surely have some value for future magical items.  I will remove it while you gather the remaining treasure.”  And we left.

We were successful in our next endeavor, and we returned to the City State of the Invincible Overlord for some well-deserved drunkenness and debauchery.  It was during that revelry that a passing bar maid first blasted our party with a cone of cold.  That hurt!

My character and I forgot that ogre magi regenerate.  Except for any parts that are removed.  Oops.  My Judge decided that the ogre mage had become a laughing stock among his kind for losing his horn, and he would pursue my character until one of us was dead.

So, my character had the horn bejeweled with precious metals and gems, to be the finest drinking horn any adventurer might hope for.  We would both prove hard to kill.

The campaign would continue to be marked by that ogre mage popping up at the most inconvenient times.  My character, being effectively hunted, took on a shadow persona and established a network of safehouses, always travelling, never truly at home.  Really, this suited him, as he was not a nice guy.  But that’s another story, of how one little artifact can turn a campaign ...

Of course, I am writing this now in anticipation of Autarch’s latest product, Lairs & Encounters, being crowdfunded now.  If one lair with one monster can bring about the fun I remember above, what will 135 plus lairs do?  I’m looking forward to finding out!

Monday, October 19, 2015

Launching the fledgling Mage

When Judging a prospective Mage (or similar arcane) player character, I first discuss what sort of Mage the player has in mind. This informs my selection of the first spell in the Mage’s starting spell repertoire:

“A 1st level arcane spellcaster starts the game with a base of one 1st level spell in his repertoire. The Judge should select an appropriate spell for the arcane spellcaster to begin with.” (ACKS p. 67)

To the extent possible, I hope to avoid cookie-cutter Mages, and a Mage’s first spell selection can kick this off by choosing a spell best fitting the Mage. I choose the spell from those available in ACKS core, the Player’s Companion or even a unique spell I construct as needed. Any remaining spells are determined randomly among the ACKS core spells only. In my games, there is an implied spell rarity, wherein core spells are common (among spellcasters), Player’s Companion spells are uncommon and other spells are rare or unique.

The Mage’s starting spell repertoire complete, I next ensure the player is aware of ACKS spell signatures:

“While spells have general effects that are common to all who cast them, the specific sensory effects associated with the spell will vary from caster to caster. This specific sensory effect is known as the spell signature. A spellcaster should write a short description of the signature for each spell he can cast.” (ACKS p. 69)

Spell signatures are an important aspect to customizing a Mage. Finally, I will advise the player on Proficiency selections which may be appropriate for the Mage. Proficiencies are the capstone to customizing an ACKS Mage.

As the Mage advances, magical scrolls, a magical wand and/or a magical staff are items the Mage will hope to acquire. When a beginning player does not realize this, the Judge should direct the player to the related rules. When a Mage is not fortunate enough to acquire these items through adventure, the Mage can turn to crafting the items. Again, the Judge should direct the player to the related rules as needed.

A Mage with Alchemy selected three times can craft potions as an Alchemist as early as level 1. As an example, a Witch can brew potions at level 3, but is delayed in scribing scrolls until level 7. I mention these to demonstrate that the crafting level limits could be tweaked by the Judge: "Every campaign is a law unto itself." Note that the ACKS Magic Research throw table supports throws for levels 0 through 14. I would not change these values, directly. I might consider campaign-specific and situational modifiers.

For something more dangerous to those looking for a swifter path to power, perhaps the rules-as-written level limits are in fact traditional limits arising in a campaign world over time. In this case, magic research can be attempted below the recommended levels, but failure could be spectacular! The Judge might use or adapt the Player’s Companion Magical Experimentation mishap tables to this purpose. Researching spells, scribing magical scrolls, or brewing potions prior to the recommended level might risk a Minor Mishap. Crafting magic items prior to the recommended level might risk a Major Mishap. Learning and casting ritual arcane spells, crafting magical constructs, creating magical cross-breeds, or creating necromantic creatures prior to the recommended level might risk a Catastrophic Mishap. (In such a campaign world, adventurers of all levels might be hired to stop an individual engaged in such dangerous research.)

Although certainly not necessary, a Judge running a campaign in a nudge higher magic world might consider my campaign rules for ACKS Level 0 Spells and/or Differentiating Mages. I have found Level 0 Spells to be a flavorful, not unbalancing addition (when appropriate to the campaign tone.) Although I have not experienced issues with Differentiating Mages, it may be many years before I personally can experience each option from levels 1 to 14 with a variety of players. Any feedback is welcome.